Charles Krauthammer has a great column today on Ron Paul. He notices what not enough people have noticed about the New Hampshire primary, which is that Paul came in second. He earned 21 percent of the vote in Iowa and 23 percent in New Hampshire. I think it's safe to say that Krauthammer is not an admirer of Paul. But his analytical conclusions mirror my own.
The first observation is that this election is not really about Paul himself but about his son. He wants to establish a family dynasty. And, to a remarkable extent, he appears to be succeeding. His son Rand, a senator from Kentucky, is being groomed to lead the avid disciples that his father is cultivating. Come 2016, a more suave Paul will champion the fight for the libertarian cause of shrinking big government. And, if Obama is elected, there probably will be more to shrink, at least in theory (in practice, of course, it never happens. Neither the GOP nor the Democrats have the stomach to cut back entitlements or restrain spending). But put that aside for one moment.
Krauthammer's related point is that Paul could upend the Republican convention. If he keeps campaigning, and there's no cogent reason he should not, then Paul could demand a prime-time slot. Krauthammer observes,
The Republican convention could conceivably feature a major address by Paul calling for the abolition of the Fed, FEMA and the CIA; American withdrawal from everywhere; acquiescence to the Iranian bomb—and perhaps even Paul’s opposition to a border fence lest it be used to keep Americans in. Not exactly the steady, measured, reassuring message a Republican convention might wish to convey. For libertarianism, however, it would be a historic moment: mainstream recognition at last.
Put aside your own view of libertarianism or of Paul himself. I see libertarianism as an important critique of the Leviathan state, not a governing philosophy. As for Paul himself, I find him a principled, somewhat wacky, highly engaging eccentric. But regardless of my feelings or yours, the plain fact is that Paul is nurturing his movement toward visibility and legitimacy.
It would be difficult to disagree. Paul has, by and large, weathered the accusations that have been leveled at him about the farrago of newsletters that appeared under his name. He's simply dismissed them, and his dismissiveness appears to have relegated them to the status of a curiosity. Paul's ambition is to inject liberatarianism into the bloodstream of the GOP. He's pure Tea Party. He's been tea partying before the party itself ever emerged. The rest of the primary season will offer further clues to the depth of the popularity for his twin calls for abolishing the Federal Reserve and for retreating from the rest of the world. Even as Iran threatens to shut down the Persian Gulf, Paul is, essentially, saying that America is at fault.
If Paul can win a substantial vote in South Carolina and other states, it would suggest that the GOP is in greater ferment than anyone predicted.
Image: Gage Skidmore
The Republican primary keeps getting wilder. The wildest statements—at least the most recent ones—have emanated from former senator Rick Santorum and Texas governor Rick Perry. Santorum said he believes that the entire West Bank belongs to Israel. It's filled with Israelis, in his view, ergo it is Israeli territory. Meanwhile, Perry announced that not only was it a bad idea to remove American troops from Iraq, as President Obama has, but that he, as president, would reverse the decision. He would send troops back to Iraq so as to counter the influence of Iran in the region.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect of the GOP primary isn't the effusions of Santorum or Perry but the fact that Mitt Romney has been attacking China. Romney has stated that Obama has allowed China to "run all over us" when it comes to taking American jobs. For good measure, he's added that he would force China to appear before the World Trade Organization for manipulating its currency. Why should this be of concern? The problem is simple: Treat China like an enemy, and it will become one. And make no mistake. The Republican field, as James Traub points out in a vital essay in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, is doing just that.
As Traub notes, America—no, the world—needs China. China is an essential partner on the global economy and climate change. Yet Republicans are emphasizing that it's essential to confront China. But this could backfire, provoking Chinese nationalism, with no descernible benefit to America. Traub notes,
It is an article of faith among Republicans that the twenty-first century, like the twentieth, will be an American century—which is to say, not a Chinese one. But 'communist China' is an absurd archaism, and China is not likely to windup on the ash heap of history. Treating the world's premier rising power like the Soviet Union in the 1960s would be a mistake of historic proportions.
It would be difficult to disagree. No doubt China will often be a competitor of America; at other times, it may well have interests that are congruent with ours. But the one thing it doesn't have to be is an adversary. The truth is that there has been an unseemly search for a new enemy among conservatives ever since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, China was touted by some as America's enemy. Then came the 9/11 attacks. China was put on the back burner. But is it purely concidental that now that the war on terror is winding down, or at least being conducted in a more prudent fashion, that bellicosity about China has become fashionable among Republicans?
China has long been a bugaboo on the Right. In the early 1950s, conservatives implausibly claimed that the Truman administration had "lost" China by capitulating to the communists. But it wasn't America's to lose. What D. W. Brogan called the illusion of American omnipotence flourished in the '50s—the notion that bad things could only occur abroad as the result of a domestic conspiracy. Otherwise, America was too virtuous and powerful to be stopped. Of course this illusion was shattered in Vietnam—at least temporarily, until it was resuscitated by the George W. Bush administration as it went to war in Iraq.
Today a Republican president who actually followed the prescriptions being enunicated during the primaries would wreak havoc in foreign affairs. The truculence of the candidates, apart from Ron Paul, suggests that they have learned little or nothing from the Bush era. It's a testament to hubris or obduracy, or perhaps both at the very same time. Whether a new sobriety would prevail once a Republican candidate was actually in office is another matter. It's hard to believe that Romney, for one, actually believes what he is saying. But there is no gainsaying the fact that bashing China is acquiring a new and unfortunate respectability among Republicans.
Image: Gage Skidmore
"Who wants to be a millionaire?" is the title of the popular American television show hosted by Meredith Vieira, who presumably qualifies for the designation herself. The more honest question in America is: who doesn't? For a country that seeks to efface, or at least elide, class distinctions, there has recently been an awful lot of talk about whether millionaires are a plague or a blessing, a sign of a country that has run amok or one in which the free-enterprise system rewards those who take risks that can result in great rewards.
Today both the New York Times and the Washington Post add a new dimension to the debate: They focus on Congress. The Post declares that "Congress looks less like the rest of America." The Times states, "Economic Slide Took a Detour At Capitol Hill." The gist of each article is that Congress never had it so good. Millionaires abound. Half of Congress now consists of millionaires. To have true clout means that you have to be worth around $100 million—Nancy Pelosi territory. The rest of the millionaire members are mere pikers.
Is the abundance of the wealthy a bad thing? Has Congress become a new Richistan, divorced from the concerns of common folk? Both articles suggest that worry is in order. But is it?
To the extent that members of Congress are prospering from their service in government, it should be. If members are engaging in insider trading, then apprehension is warranted. But the mere presence of millionaires is not. For one thing, there seems to be little indication that members are actually voting on the basis of their own wealth. Sure, Republicans favor tax cuts, which they argue end up promoting economic growth. But Democrats, many of whom are also millionaires, are not arguing that the wealthy should be exempt from higher taxes. Instead, they espouse policies that Republicans allege would suffocate growth. The Post contends,
The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented means that there is a greater distance between the economic experience of Americans and those of lawmakers.
Not necessarily. It's possible that a Congressman began his or her career with little or no economic means and then, either through luck or assiduity, became wealthy. An argument could also be made that a wealthy lawmaker might be more independent of business or other interests than one who was wholly dependent on donations from lobbyists and corporations. But it's also the case that, more often than not, it takes a lot of money to run for Congress. If voters were really apoplectic about wealth disparities, then they would fundamentally alter the manner in which elections themselves are conducted, drastically shortening the campaign season and forbidding most advertising on television and the radio. Another way to ensure that Congress is not simply a preserve for the wealthy would be to curtail its legislative session, something that Texas governor Rick Perry appeared to endorse. But these are all improbable suggestions that will never be enacted.
The real problem with well-heeled Congressmen is that the optics are bad. When the country is suffering, it doesn't like the idea of what amounts to a modern-day Roman patrician class. Whether the concerns about prosperity in Congress will get much traction might prove another barometer of the concerns about wealth inequality in America, which have been mounting over the past year. The wealthy form a convenient target for populist animus—Franklin Roosevelt announced that he welcomed the brickbats being hurled by plutocrats—"I welcome their hatred," he said in 1936 at Madison Square Garden.
But in America, concerns about the wealthy have proven spasmodic. Overall wealth inequality has diminished somewhat since the 1990s as a result of the gyrations of the stock market and the battering the real-estate sector has suffered. It's unclear that personal wealth has greatly altered the stance of either political party. Congress deserves to be flayed for many reasons, but its wealth is probably not one of them.
Mitt Romney keeps getting more interesting. It's no secret that he's been steadily flipping and flopping his way to the Republican presidential nomination. Abortion? He was for it before he was against it. Global warming? Ditto. But underneath he's always conveyed the impression, even as he contorts himself into conservative positions, or what passes for them, that he knows better.
The latest instance, as Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, is the Iraq War. Romney now indicates that he doesn't think it was a good idea. Had George W. Bush known that weapons of mass destruction were not in Iraq, he told NBC's Chuck Todd, America would have acted differently:
If we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction, if somehow we had been given that information, obviously we would not have gone in.
No, no, no. This is not the standard GOP talking point. The standard point is what Romney himself said earlier—four years ago, to be precise:
It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now.
What Romney's latest statement assumes, of course, is rationality on the part of vice president Dick Cheney when it came to Iraq. That's a mighty big assumption. And its further testament to Romney's own common sense. But weapons of mass destruction, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz put it, was never more than a policy that everyone could agree on—it was the fig leaf to justify the invasion. Iraq was supposed to be a demonstration shot, a Jacksonian "don't tread on me" moment. And it was supposed to launch a wave of democratization in the Arab world—even as Iraq now appears to be succumbing to its fissiparous ethnic tensions. But never mind.
The good news is that Romney clearly has a lot of trouble staying on message when spouting the neocon line about foreign policy. One problem may be that, at bottom, he doesn't really believe it. Romney has always been steeped in moderation. In his new book Rule and Ruin, the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice points out that George Romney almost landed the GOP nomination in 1968 and would have taken the party in a very different direction than that followed by the neocons and the movement conservatives. Mitt is surely running in part to redeem his father's failed quest. Perhaps this is also explains why he hasn't truly imbibed the neocon gospel on foreign affairs. Chait concludes,
Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement.
Indeed it is. Consider Romney's performances at the GOP debates. It's difficult to shake the feeling that he has palpable contempt for the other candidates, whom he regards as a bunch of noodles. I've never been able to conclude anything other than that he feels like he's soiling himself even to appear on the same stage with the likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Romney is far more intelligent and has greater accomplishments than any of them. Romney's arrogance also came through during his controversial interview with Brett Baier of Fox News, who pummeled him with questions a few weeks ago.
Of course Romney's self-confidence pales next to the voluble Newt Gingrich, who leaves you with the feeling that if no one else is around he probably lectures to the mirror in the room. But Romney's confidence is rooted in his own record of success. Gingrich sends up a cloud of verbal obfuscation to disguise his own shallowness. As the campaign progresses, it will be fascinating to observe Romney's evolution. How long will it take before he sheds his current conservative incarnation, which hasn't really persuaded anyone, and returns to his moderate views?
Image: Lexicon, Vikrum
A stock tip for the New Year: if you own shares of Hennessy Paradis cognac, you might want to consider selling. The dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, who just shuffled his mortal coil, was one of its biggest buyers.
The demise of Kim is something of a loss for foreign-policy experts. He made for good copy. He knew how to live it up in the grand, dictatorial style, reminiscent, in a way, of old Hollywood, where money is no object and a potentate can indulge his every fantasy. The women (sometimes kidnapped from Japan), the booze, the swanky home near Pyongyang that apparently had a racetrack and an artificial lake. This is in marked contrast to Stalin and Hitler, both of whom led fairly ascetic lives and were consumed with power rather than its perks and its privileges. It was their subordinates—Beria driving around Moscow at night to kidnap women, Yezhov with his collection of women's panties, Hermann Goering with the feudal hunting estates—who lived as large as they could.
Now his third son, Kim Jong-un, is supposed to keep the claptrap enterprise known as the state of North Korea going. He has not displayed any of his old man's prodigious appetites. On the other hand, he has not had the chance. If he successfully stakes his claim to power, he might prove quite different from his father.
For one thing, will he become a reformer? Around the world the dicatator business is not what it was. The opportunities are fewer and less inviting. The Arab world is changing. The House of Assad looks to be crumbling. Even the Burmese Generals appear to be throwing in the towel. Vladimir Putin himself may be headed for retirement sooner than he would like. Admittedly, North Korea holds some special cards. For one thing, it has remained virginal when it comes to the Internet. Its population, cowed into submission, has been infantilized about the outside world. The country is more Stalinist than Stalin's Russia ever was.
What would really need to be arranged to create a soft landing in North Korea is a buyout. South Korea, Japan and the United States would have to create a fund to ensure a cozy retirement for the ruling magnates. The danger is that they will engage in increasingly provocative behavior to secure their hold on power. For South Korea, the ultimate nightmare is a sudden collapse in which millions of refugees come streaming over the border to sample the delights of the West that their leaders have denied them for decades. Of course, the last thing China or Japan wants is a single Korea—a geopolitical nightmare for both. In this case, two is better than one.
For President Obama, the likelihood of a succession crisis could be a disaster. It introduces a new imponderable into the election that could well make the debate over Iran look like a sideshow. An active military conflict between North and South Korea would throw the world into a new Great Depression and draw in outside powers. Just as America pulled out of Iraq, a new potential hotspot looms in Asia. How Obama handles it could prove the biggest test of his presidency.
Ron Paul could be the sleeper candidate who wins Iowa. For all the attention lavished upon Newt Gingrich, it may be Paul who has the most organizational resources in Iowa to challenge Mitt Romney for the lead. He could win an upset victory.
For anyone looking for a different, insurgent candidate, Paul is it. The GOP has already run through a number of would-be challengers—Herman Cain, Rick Perry. But Paul is the true rebel with a cause. That cause, more or less, has been a libertarian approach to the federal government. Paul, the godfather of the Tea Party, is no Johnny-come-lately to the bash-big-government party. He's been railing against it for decades, a lonely voice in the wilderness. But now the old growth has been hacked down and he's standing in a clearing, surrounded by rapt followers. To them, Paul is the messiah, a prophet ready to attack the size and scope of government.
For some conservatives, this makes Paul a distinctly uncomfortable figure. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, for example, Kimberley A. Strassel explains "Why Ron Paul Can't Win." What she also means is why he shouldn't win. She makes some approving noises about his domestic stands. But there her approval ends. Foreign policy is the rub. Paul, she suggests, is a blame-America-first type. He lacks the necessary vigor to defend America from assault.
According to Strassel,
Mr. Paul's new strategy has been to assail opponents like Mr. Gingrich, hoping to remind voters of his rivals' flaws. But the bar to Mr. Paul's campaign is not his opponents, or their money, or (a frequent Paul complaint) media bias. Because he can't, or won't, accommodate his own foreign policy views to those of the nation, there is only one bar to a Ron Paul victory: Mr. Paul.
Strassel's comments point to an unacknowledged conundrum for many conservatives. If they are opposed to big government—and many say they are—then why do they exempt the biggest part of the government from scrutiny? Why, moreover, do they not simply exempt it from scrutiny but actively proclaim that we need to give it even more money? Yet the Pentagon has never been more awash in funds—the Congress just approved a $662 billion budget for it. Does it really need all that money? Or have we moved to a permanent war economy?
In the latest Vanity Fair, Todd S. Purum outlines the shocking dimensions that American spending on the military has assumed. His article is titled "One Nation Under Arms." He cites George F. Kennan, who observed that America's role in the world today would come as a rude surprise to the founding fathers. They never envisioned a garrison state. Quite the opposite. But as Purdum notes, military spending has become a vital part of the economy. In addition, no president, at least in modern times, has willingly surrendered the power that he can exercise virtually untrammelled in the national-security sphere. As a result, spending has soared:
In historic terms, this addiction to military spending—one that dominates the existence of places as diverse as Huntsville and Cedar Rapids, Norfolk and San Diego, El Paso and Colorado Springs—would have been seen as un-American. For generations, the nation’s pattern after each armed conflict was demobilization. In 1918, as World War I ended, France was spending $235 per capita on its military, Great Britain $188, and the U.S. just $68. As late as 1940, on the eve of its entry into World War II, the United States spent just 1.7 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The level today is three times that proportion, on a vastly greater base. American military spending accounts for 43 percent of all defense spending worldwide, 6 times the share of China, 12 times that of Russia. The U.S. Navy is larger than the next 13 navies combined. Overall, defense spending increased about 70 percent under George W. Bush, and it now stands at more than half a trillion dollars annually, roughly $100 billion a year (in inflation-adjusted dollars) above the levels at the height of the Cold War.
It is this phenomenon that has Ron Paul so exercised. His indignation centers not simply on spending but what it implies for America as a nation. As he sees it, America's moral values have become corroded. Americans are surrendering their freedoms in the name of protecting them. It's improbable that Paul will capture the Republican nomination. But it's worth heeding his cautionary voice. And it may be impossible to avoid him. He may well wreak havoc in the Republican primary as well as the presidential race. If Paul decides to run as an independent in the general election, it would be a daunting prospect for any Republican candidate for the presidency, whether it's Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney. Watch out for Paul.
Why is Newt Gingrich engaging in an excursus into the history of the Middle East? The other day this famous historian of the Congo announced that he had made a major new discovery about the Middle East. His pearl of wisdom: the Palestinians are an "invented people."
Oh, yeah? The proper response to Speaker Gingrich, who is purporting to speak the truth, and only the truth, about the Palestinians, is this: who isn't?
Gingrich needs fresh information. The idea of "imagined communities," as a variety of scholars have shown, is a common theme in the history of most nations. Nations have constantly invented themselves. Each has its own set of founding myths. In fact, it's something of a left-wing notion to emphasize that nations are artificial constructs.
What does Speaker Gingrich think the Zionist movement did other than whip up a new community by invoking old dreams of a Jewish nation? Theodor Herzl sketched out a Zionist utopia in, among other places, his novel Old New Land. It was a wildly idealistic vision of a new Jewish state in which Jews and Arabs worked side by side peacefully so as to create a technocratic utopia. The Zionists drew on Herzl's vision to set out to construct a nation, complete with flags, national anthem and so on.
What renders Gingrich's remarks so opprobrious is that they were a deliberate provocation. They weren't about whether the Palestinians are an invented community or not. They were intended to cast doubt on their claim to any territory at all in the Middle East—Gingrich implied that they should have settled in the various Arab nations instead of pleading their case to the world community, these nettlesome folk—and to demonstrate, above all, that he, Gingrich, has more cojones than anyone else in the GOP field when it comes to siding with Israel. That he is further tarnishing America's reputation in the Middle East and elsewhere is irrelevant to him. The fact is that historical debates about who was there first are irrelevant, tedious, interminable. Israel exists. The Palestinians aren't going away. Gingrich knows this. Which is why his campaign is announcing that he does believe in a two-state solution.
Mitt Romney seized upon Gingrich's remarks as further evidence of his unreadiness to serve as president. As Romney rightly pointed out in the Sunday debate, Gingrich is hardly doing Israel any favors by creating more "tumult" in the region, as though it weren't enough of a powder keg already. But Gingrich's tawdry comments were the reductio ad absurdum of a GOP field that, until now, has appeared to know no limits in its desire to abase itself before Jewish voters in a desperate attempt to siphon off votes from Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
As is his wont, Gingrich praised himself for his courage. According to Gingrich,
I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire and who overruled his entire State Department in order to say, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and reframed the world. I am a Reaganite, I'm proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.
Gingrich flatters himself. His remarks are a monument to his own vanity. No doubt it is good to have a president with the courage to tell the truth. But Reagan was hardly risking nuclear war when he yelled at Mikhail Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate. He was, incidentally, challenging Mikhail Gorbachev to show that he believed in peace by tearing down the Berlin Wall—he wasn't denouncing him. Reagan was always polite. Firm but polite. Reagan also, let it be known, told Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to quit bombing Lebanon in 1983. To judge by Gingrich's behavior, he would tell Israel to up the firepower. Reagan also, over intense Israeli objections, sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia in 1981. He was a friend of Israel's, not a fawning pushover.
Gingrich can call himself a Reaganite all he wants, but it's false branding. Reagan was cautious, prudent and firm. Gingrich is anything but.
The news for Europe keeps getting worse. The Bank of England is issuing more money to avert a liquidity crisis in the United Kingdom. Growth was close to zero in the euro zone in the past quarter. Now comes an unexpected insult: Standard & Poor's, fresh from having threatened the members of the euro zone, including France and Germany, with a downgrade from AAA status, delivered a new blow today. It's now threatening the credit status of something else—the European rescue fund itself. If the fund needs rescuing, then Europe cannot be rescued. Instead, it will plunge into a debt crisis and recession simultaneously, dragging down the American economy with it, not to mention President Obama's electoral fortunes. Perhaps Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who keeps visiting Europe to plead with it to reform, should take up permanent residence in one of King Leopold's old castles in Brussels?
The fundamental problem, of course, is that there is no such thing as Europe. Oh, there has been an idea of Europe for eons—the Carolingian empire, the Ottonian empire and all that. But what exists today is a welter of countries subsisting uneasily under the mantle of European unity. The people who really believe in Europe belong to a cossetted, technocratic class of public servants who drive around in Mercedeses on government money and talk about the virtues of ever-increasing unification. In retrospect, however, it may have been German reunification that helped crack up the whole enterprise. To allay fears that a single Germany would be too big and powerful, Helmut Kohl, the heir of Konrad Adenauer, abandoned the mighty deutsche mark in favor of the euro. Germany would be a docile, tamed power. It wouldn't throw its weight around.
But, of course, it has, willy-nilly, begun to puff out its chest a little bit in recent years. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder rejected participation in the Iraq War and won reelection by running on anti-American slogans. Now Angela Merkel, the woman from the East, is proposing structural changes to the European Union, including new mechanisms to enforce debt limits. But Europe doesn't seem to be much different than America in this respect: even if new enforcement measures are taken they can always be evaded. Remember "pay as you go"?
But there is one difference: Germany is now in a position to impose—or, if you are one of the countries under its lash, inflict—its rules of the game. Germany has a negligible budget deficit. Its citizens save. It can afford to cut taxes but doesn't. The trouble is: Can you really effect a cultural, not just an economic, shift almost overnight? Can Germany convert the rest of Europe into diligent little Teutons? A new Franco-German treaty negotiated in haste and intended to be ratified by mid-March is supposed to solve the problem. Germany is trying to change the rules before it helps its neighbors. But it may not have enough time. It's the equivalent of demanding that a hospital patient suffering from a heart attack immediately begin a new exercise regime before he is operated upon.
The phrase after reunification was that a European Germany, not a German Europe, would emerge. It's starting to look the other way around. A rebellion against German dominance should not be discounted, but it might come at the price of the euro and economic growth for a decade.
Is Iran a threat to America? Or is it a fading power? The Iranian storming of the British embassy should not be interpreted as a sign of growing radicalism in Iran but as testament to the weakness of the regime. It has nothing in common with the 1979 takeover of the American embassy. There is no mass support inside Iran for attacking the United Kingdom. The calls in the Iranian parliament for "death to Britain" have an obligatory feel to them.
Yet the possiblity of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons has prompted a number of neoconservatives to maintain that it's imperative to launch a strike against it. Max Boot's column in the Los Angeles Times is a case in point. Paul Pillar points to the abuse of Nazi analogies in his post today. But Boot's column can be questioned on other grounds as well.
What caught my eye were the other historical analogies that Boot made. He asks why the West remained passive not just during the rise of Nazi Germany, but also
While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while Al Qaeda gathered strength in the 1990s? Those questions will forever haunt the reputations of the responsible statesmen, from Neville Chamberlain to Bill Clinton.
Start with the Soviet Union. Could America and Great Britain have stopped Stalin from conquering Eastern Europe? This is an old conservative myth, the notion that Franklin Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe, most notably at Yalta. But it's hard to see what leverage America had over what was, after all, its wartime ally. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting. America supplied it with weaponry. But no one in America, let alone England, was prepared to go to war over Eastern Europe. Winston Churchill himself agreed to a percentages deal over Eastern Europe with Stalin. Somewhat contradictorily, Boot indicates towards the end of his essay that it was the right choice to avoid war with Russia—which leaves open the question of how the West was supposed to impede the creation of the Soviet Union's East European satellite empire.
Then there is China. This was another conservative canard, the idea that the Truman administration "lost" China. It didn't. China wasn't America's to lose. For one thing, the communist takeover in 1949 was not the sole product of Soviet meddling. It was an internal civil war that pitted the communists against the corrupt nationalists. America was in the position of backing a losing horse in the form of Chiang Kai-shek. It would have been nice if it had turned out differently. But China plunged itself into the lunacy of mass famines and the Cultural Revolution. Along the way, incidentally, it became a fierce foe of the USSR.
And what about al-Qaeda? It's curious that Boot neglects to mention George W. Bush, the man who actually was president when the attacks were launched on September 11 and who brushed off in August 2001 his CIA briefer, who warned him about heightened terrorist threats, by informing him that "you covered your ass." No question: Clinton could and should have done more. But it isn't as though the Clinton administration stood by idly (to liken Bill Clinton to Neville Chamberlain does violence to what appeasement really represented). Anyway, there was no stomach in America for launching a full-scale war against al-Qaeda before September 11.
None of this means that Boot's bottom line might not be correct. It could be that in Iran we are facing an implacable and revolutionary foe that can only be stopped by force, the sooner the better. But the historical examples that Boot offers about Eastern Europe, China and al-Qaeda do not support that case.
Nor, for that matter, do the regime's latest actions. Iran is on the defensive. Far from slumbering about the Iran threat, the West has steadily been increasing sanctions. If they can be turned tightly enough, the regime will likely implode. Iran is not North Korea, where an isolated poplation has no idea about what is transpiring in the outside world. There is no reason to panic about Tehran. So far, it has been offering its population and the world nothing other than bluff and bombast.
Poor Angela Merkel. She's being drubbed for doing too little or too much. What's a lady to do?
All three of the major newspapers—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post—feature editorials today about Germany. Only the Journal dissents from conventional wisdom. Regnant opinion is that Germany needs to cinch its lederhosen one notch tighter and engage in the unpleasant but necessary task of coming to the rescue of its feckless southern cousins. Germany, we are told, needs to put its financial muscle behind Eurobonds that will be floated to cover the debts of Greece, Italy and Spain. Otherwise, financial contagion will continue to spread, assailing Germany itself.
The Journal, by contrast, suggests that Merkel has it right. This is the time to hang tough. No bailouts. Assisting these countries by backstopping their debts will stop reform in its tracks. The patient has just begun to get ambulatory. The second he sees a crutch in the form of Eurobonds, he will slack off and return to the easy chair, munching chips all day and musing about what it's like to hold down a job instead of watching soccer matches on the government dole all day. According to the Journal:
Europe's original sin in this crisis was not letting Greece default, remaining in the euro but shrinking its debt load as it reformed its economy. The example would have sent a useful message of discipline to countries and creditors alike. The fear at the time was that a default would spread the contagion of higher bond rates, but those rates have soared despite the bailouts of Greece and Portugal.
Unfortunately, this sounds like a recipe for disaster. There are times when the conventional wisdom is right. This is probably one of them. To have let Greece go under could have triggered a worldwide recession or even a depression. It's true that Europe needs to cut entitlement programs and spending. But that message has already come home. Britain, which is not under as much duress as Greece, is experiencing a general strike today as government workers protest cuts in their pension plans. But the protesters must know in their heart of hearts that the salad days of the postwar social-welfare state have come to an abrupt terminus. What we are witnessing is the last thrashings of a dinosaur, not the beginnings of an emergent new socialist movement. A new Beveridge Plan along the lines of the one that established the postwar English welfare state is not in the offing.
This is why apprehensions about inflation in Europe are misplaced. Those opposed to the creation of Eurobonds are living in the past as well. Like generals fighting the last war, they are fixated with a nonexistent threat. If Italy is unable to finance its debt and the Euro collapses, a new Great Depression could well loom. Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, speaking in Berlin on Monday night, stated:
There is nothing inevitable about Europe's decline. But we are standing on the edge of a precipice. This is the scariest moment of my ministerial life but therefore also the most sublime.
The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland would be the collapse of the eurozone.
And I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help it survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it.
I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.
He is right. Having ravaged Europe a half century ago, Germany now has the chance to rescue it. Will it seize the opportunity? Or will it remain in the shadows, a captive of its dark history?